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The Brandt Report

2021 NFL season: Nine players who are guaranteed to play better

In the NFL, as in life, there are ups and downs. Each season, for a variety of reasons, some players will struggle to produce at the level we are used to seeing -- but that doesn't mean things can't turn around.

Below, I've listed nine players who are guaranteed to play better in 2021 than they did in 2020. Some have changed teams, some will benefit from increased stability and some are simply too good not to rebound from a down season. And some didn't even play poorly at all, but will reach even greater heights in the coming campaign.

One thing to note: I stayed away from players whose 2020 campaigns were limited mostly by an absence due to injury. There's not much fun in predicting a player who was hurt last year will play better when healthy.

Cam Newton
New England Patriots · QB

2020 stats: 15 games | 65.8 pct | 2,657 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 8 pass TD | 10 INT | 592 rush yds | 12 rush TD

Don't just take my word for it. The fact that Bill Belichick re-signed Newton to a one-year deal suggests the greatest head coach in NFL history believes Newton is ready to rebound from a rough season. Newton's 2020 included a bout with COVID-19, a 7-8 record as a starter, a subpar touchdown-to-interception ratio and an average of just 177.1 passing yards per game, easily the worst of his career. There are multiple reasons for optimism heading into 2021. First, Newton will benefit from spending the entire offseason with New England -- last year, he didn't sign until the end of June, giving him comparatively little time to adjust to the first team change of his NFL tenure -- and from having some time in Josh McDaniels' offense under his belt already. Second, the Patriots significantly upgraded the NFL's worst group of skill-position talent by signing Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Finally, while I expect Newton to remain the starter heading into the season, first-round pick Mac Jones will be lurking on the Patriots' depth chart, meaning Newton should be motivated to prove he can still be a No. 1 quarterback in 2022, whether in New England or elsewhere. 

Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · QB

2020 stats: 16 games | 64.2 pct | 4,084 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 26 pass TD | 10 INT | 112 rush yds | 0 rush TD

Stafford's inclusion here is not really about rebounding from a poor individual performance; as usual, he provided a strong baseline of productivity in Detroit last season. It's more about how much more he can do in an improved situation. After 12 seasons in Detroit marred by organizational failings, no player needed a change of scenery this offseason more than Stafford. He got exactly that when his request to be traded landed him with a Sean McVay-coached Rams team loaded with skill-position talent. Over Stafford's final five seasons with the Lions, just three Detroit players cleared 1,000 receiving yards in any given season (Golden Tate in 2016 and '17, Marvin Jones in 2017 and Kenny Golladay in 2018 and '19 -- none of whom are currently with the team), and no one topped 1,000 rushing yards. In Los Angeles, Stafford will get to throw to players like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and DeSean Jackson. Meanwhile, Cam Akers could finally prove to be the first true bell-cow back of Stafford's career. I happen to think the QB who swapped places with Stafford, Jared Goff, has the potential to have a bounceback season in Detroit. But between the Rams' stacked offense and lights-out defense, Stafford is in great position to win now.

Carson Wentz
Indianapolis Colts · QB

2020 stats: 12 games | 57.4 pct | 2,620 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 16 pass TD | 15 INT | 276 rush yds | 5 rush TD

Reuniting with Colts head coach Frank Reich, who served as Wentz's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia during one of the best seasons of Wentz's NFL career (2017), should help Wentz get things back on track after the ignominious end to his tenure with the Eagles, as should a supporting cast that ranks among the best in the NFL. Wentz will have the kinds of assets at running back (Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Marlon Mack) and receiver (Michael Pittman, T.Y. Hilton) that he missed badly in his final three seasons with the Eagles. But what I'm most excited about for Wentz is the opportunity to play behind one of the league's top offensive lines. In 2020, Wentz was taken down for an NFL-high 50 sacks, despite being benched for four games -- his confidence should be much higher in Indy, where the offensive line was credited with just 12 sacks allowed last season, per Pro Football Focus, seventh-least in the NFL. Bonus: The Colts' defense is much better than the Eagles' was, too. 

J.J. Watt
Arizona Cardinals · DE

2020 stats: 16 games | 5.0 sacks | 52 tackles | 14 tackles for loss | 17 QB hits | 2 fumbles forced | 1 INT

It might seem like Watt's career is in steep decline, given that he's logged just nine sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons. But I'm bullish he'll prove otherwise in 2021. Yes, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year will provide an instant infusion of leadership and enthusiasm after signing in Arizona. But the former Texan should also get a boost himself from joining a front seven featuring defenders like Chandler Jones (presuming any contract issues are settled), Isaiah Simmons, Markus Golden and rookie linebacker Zaven Collins (depending on whether his recent arrest for reckless driving impacts his availability). Watt may be 32, but let's not forget how his last 16-game season on a competitive team worked out; in 2018, Watt, racked up 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles while also earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors.

Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · RB

2020 stats: 15 games | 244 att | 979 rush yds | 4.0 ypa | 6 rush TD | 52 rec | 338 rec yds | 2 rec TD

Elliott's disappointing 2020 season will hopefully serve as a wakeup call for a someone whose first four pro seasons were brilliant. Elliott's yards-per-game mark of 65.3 was the lowest of his career by almost 20 yards; he also fumbled a career-high six times and recorded eight games in which gained 60 yards or less, by far the most he's ever had in a season. It can be argued that backup Tony Pollard was a more effective back by season's end, and he definitely earned whatever increased playing time comes his way this season. That said, Elliott seems to be on the right track, apparently recommitting himself to being one of the league's best ball carriers. Between that and the return to health of Dak Prescott, I expect a significant upturn in production from Elliott this year.

Yannick Ngakoue
Las Vegas Raiders · DE

2020 stats: 15 games | 8.0 sacks | 23 tackles | 7 tackles for loss | 11 QB hits | 4 fumbles forced

The Vikings acquired Ngakoue in a trade with Jacksonville last year as a final-piece-of-the-puzzle type player, only to wind up trading him again to Baltimore after it became obvious injuries were going to dash any hopes Minnesota had of chasing a championship. Ngakoue finished with a quiet 8.0 sacks for the season. But setting aside his disappointing time with the Vikings, there are hints Ngakoue can make noise after signing with the Raiders. After all, in his nine games with Baltimore, Ngakoue tied for the third-best get-off time (0.73 seconds) and a top-20 pressure rate (12.4%, tied for 15th) among those with 200-plus pass-rush snaps last season, per Next Gen Stats. Ngakoue also made the conscious decision to add weight and muscle mass as part of an effort to be a "better player," according to The Athletic. I expect him to turn heads in Las Vegas opposite Maxx Crosby, finishing with 10-plus sacks for the first time since his Pro Bowl season of 2017. 

Patrick Peterson
Minnesota Vikings · CB

2020 stats: 16 games | 3 INTs | 8 passes defensed | 61 tackles

In 2019, Xavier Rhodes had one of his worst seasons as a professional, left the Vikings, then enjoyed a renaissance in Indianapolis. I could see Peterson following a similar path after joining (coincidentally) Minnesota. Peterson allowed a passer rating of 99.1 and a completion percentage above expectation of 8.1 percent in the final season of his 10-year run in Arizona. But perhaps moving to a team where he feels "appreciated" will be enough to rejuvenate the 30-year-old eight-time Pro Bowler. The Vikings' signing looks even better given that young corner Jeff Gladney could be facing discipline following his arrest on a charge of family violence.

Diontae Johnson
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR

2020 stats: 15 games | 144 targets | 88 rec | 923 rec yds | 10.5 ypc | 7 rec TD

JuJu Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR

2020 stats: 16 games | 128 targets | 97 rec | 831 rec yds | 8.6 ypc | 9 rec TD

The Steelers have an established track record of developing non-first-rounders into top-flight receivers, but Johnson and Smith-Schuster put a kink in that pipeline with their lackluster 2020 seasons. Johnson led the NFL with 14 drops in 2020, per PFF. Smith-Schuster did improve on his production from 2019, meaning he technically realized my prediction for him when I included him in this piece last year. But he still didn't show the game-breaking ability we saw in an outstanding 2018, finishing last season with a pedestrian yards-per-catch mark of 8.6. Pittsburgh's offense became far too dependent on the short passing game and was hampered by the NFL's worst rushing attack in terms of yards per carry. While the remade offensive line will have to prove it's up to snuff, the scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the addition of first-round running back Najee Harris should lead to more meaningful production from both Johnson and Smith-Schuster, especially if Johnson's offseason work on hanging onto the ball takes. 

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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